Described by literary critic Peter Craven as “an attack on the modern corporate university,” Hannie Rayson’s play Life After George (2000) is also about the idea of what a university is and can be.
The “George” of the title is Peter George, an ageing Professor of History who’s been married three times and, according to his first wife, is “impulsive, passionate, and full of folly.” George is someone committed to Leftist ideas of a good society and the role of education. He believes in academic excellence and the importance and value of the humanities. But at fifty-eight (and at the end of the millennium) these passions and beliefs — indeed these professional principles — now seem marginalising and inconsequential.
When the history department is identified as a “non-performing sector,” George’s second wife Lindsey, Dean of Arts, says, “Within twelve months you’re looking at slashing a quarter of your subjects and sacking five or six Senior Lecturers. And that’s optimistic. You’re not getting any clients.”
George protests. His enrolments are up, he says. “But,” Lindsay replies, “your students don’t pay fees.” “So we should be teaching tourism, marketing and hospitality management?” Lindsay calls George an elitist, and he in turn responds by preferring to think in terms of academic excellence, as if to ask, When did excellence suddenly become elitist?
Who today would call George an elitist? Especially when we see news headlines like these: “Cuts to humanities departments are cuts to our ability to reason,” “Students defy PM’s push to get them away from humanities degrees,” and “Don’t be a HASS-been, HSC leavers: the humanities will make you job-ready (just ask Kamala Harris).”
Rayson wrote her play in the wake of reforms to higher education made by John Dawkins (Minister for Employment, Education and Training, 1987-1991). The Dawkins reforms wanted higher education to respond more to the needs of industry and in line with national interests and objectives.
According to Glyn Davis, author of The Australian Idea of a University (2017) and former Vice Chancellor of University of Melbourne, the Dawkins reforms allowed universities “to charge up-front fees to international students. In time, this would create a huge export industry for Australia, and allow government to reduce financial support for universities.” These changes provoked “intensified concerns about a managerial logic,” and debates often took the form of “a narrative of decline in traditional university values.”
Obviously this has only intensified. Almost daily, news items and commentary report the problems facing higher education funding as well as the downsizing of departments and entrenched casualisation, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, which has turned the economic garment worn by all of us inside out, revealing how insecurely everything is stitched together.
In Hannie Rayson’s play, George believes students are being turned into corporate fodder. He feels passionately that the function of a university has been lost sight of — to produce educated citizens, not “compliant employees.”
George stubbornly remains true to his own history and beliefs, to his own committed idealism, which is “the most precious and profound human capacity” because it means you are not for sale. And for George, the question of the future isn’t how he’s going to assist in implementing a corporate agenda, but how he’s going to fight it. In its own small way Life After George, the first play to be nominated for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, therefore continues a tradition of investigating the challenges and contradictions of idealism.
But George doesn’t live long enough to fight for idealism — he’s killed in a freak plane crash. The play is also then quite marvellously about grief and the lives we share with friends and spouses. And yet Rayson’s work achieves its final emotional coherence, its most affecting portrayal of tenderness and love, in the relationship between father and daughter, which is to say that such relationships may be the only aspect of life where idealism serves you well. But that’s not a recommendation.